Writing Online Survey Questions That Work

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.

Advise on how to craft superior suvey questionnaires.

Writing the right kind of questions for your online customer survey is absolutely critical. Otherwise, the information you gather will be meaningless and useless. Anyone can ask questions, but making sure that yours are clear, unambiguous, easily understood, and easy to answer takes a special effort. Here are a few tips on how to do that and some examples of what can go wrong.

Focus on one thing at a time. If you want to know about your customers' buying preferences for jeans, sweat shirts, and chinos, make sure that you ask about each of these things in separate questions. For example, "Have you ever bought our jeans?" "Have you ever bought our sweat shirts?" and "Have you ever bought our chinos?" are three good questions because you will find out which of these items your customer has bought. The question, "Have you ever bought our jeans, sweat shirts or chinos?" is not as effective, because the answer won't tell you which item was bought.

A related issue is that you might think a question zeroes in on one area, while in fact the structure of the question opens multiple areas and answers. These are called embedded questions. For example, you might consider the question, "Is our staff friendly and courteous?" focuses on customer service, but in fact this question targets two areas: friendliness and courtesy. If a customer answers, "Yes," how will you know whether the customer thinks your staff is friendly or if they are courteous? Or more friendly than courteous, or vice versa? Moreover, even if you don't need to differentiate between the two, the customer might be confused by the mixed nature of the question.

Avoid abstract questions. For example, your customers probably will not know how to answer the question, "Do you think that our managers feel that customers should be respected?" They won't be able to tell you what your managers feel. A better way to phrase this question might be, "Do you feel respected by our managers?" This question emphasizes the customer's experience.

Along the same lines, make sure to avoid ambiguous terms such as "often," "usually," or "normally." These terms mean different things to different people. To get the most useful information from your customers, use quantitative terms such as "50 percent of the time."

Use simple language. Avoid acronyms, technical terms, and jargon that only certain people can understand, or define them when you use them. The question "Would you prefer regular or JIT delivery?" can only be answered by someone who knows what JIT stands for.

Once you have written your questions, give them to a friend or a colleague and ask which seem problematic. Your questions always make sense to you because you knew what you meant when you wrote them. Another person can point out things that escaped your attention. Now you're ready to take your survey live.

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to jtowler@creativeorgdesign.com. For more information, please contact us.

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